Thursday, 18 March 2010

Around Kuching

The Astana in Kuching, built as the home of the 'White Rajahs'.

Very unusually, I had trouble sleeping on Wednesday night. My left arm has been giving me some trouble since I fell down walking the dog in our very cold weather. Before I could fall asleep, the arm would start playing up, so I paid for some computer time for my Notebook connected to the hotel’s physical network and started uploading pictures and answering e-mails. I got up at six again, so as to be in the Executive Lounge where they serve breakfast. Alternately, I could’ve gone downstairs to the Coffee Shop but the Executive Lounge on the twelfth floor gave me what I wanted plus a view of the Sarawak River waking up.

First, a little history. John Brooke was another of those English adventurer types. He was invited into Sarawak by the local Rajah to assist in quelling a spot of bother the Sultan of Brunei was having. To paraphrase an old T.V. advert, he liked Sarawak so much, he bought the country and started a hundred year rule by White Rajahs. During Japan’s expansionist phase, the Japanese occupied Sarawak and the White Rajah at the time needed the help of the British government to force the Japanese to surrender. So, after WWII, the country became British with a Governor-General living in the Astana, the fairly grand house facing old Kuching from across the river. By the 1960s, Britain was committed to giving most of its former Empire independence and Sarawak became a State in the Federation of Malaysia. Malaysia, like Indonesia, is predominently Muslim. But, just as Bali is the exceptikon in Indonesia, so Sarawak is the exception in Malaysia, with 29% Christian – both Catholic and non-Catholic, 26% Muslim and 19% Buddhist, Taoist or Hindu. That leaves about 30% as none of the above. I’m assured that all these faiths co-exist without problems – certainly I saw no overt signs of tension. The Taoist contingent comes from the significant Chinese population. In Sarawak, as in other countries where they’ve settled, the Chinese characteristics of industry and single-mindedness have left them in control of significant areas of commerce.

Shortly after eight my guide, also the driver, arrived in a Mercedes and we set off for the thirty minute drive to the Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Orang-utans are now protected in Malaysia, but not before a number of these noble creatures had been kept in captivity. At Semenggok, the rehabilitated orang-utans roam freely in the rain forest, often returning to at meal times. A successful breeding programme means that there’s a chance of seeing mother and baby together. About a hundred visitors trooped through the forest on prepared footpaths to watch food being left out and the rangers calling the creatures by name. At one spot, one of the females came with her youngster of a few years for food. They remained thirty of forty feet away from us but sixteen feet is regarded as the minimum separation as they can be violent. It’s quite odd when the only physical barrier is a rope barrier at the side of the track to keep the humans out! By the ranger’s office, there was another female with her one year old baby. In this case, they were much closer to us. There was no sign of the dominant male called Ritchie. As we left the forest, my guide pointed out some of the more interesting plant species, like the Sensitive plant and two varieties of Pitcher plant. Pictures at Semenggok.

We drove further along the main road which eventually leads to Brunei and Sabah, turning right onto the road which eventually leads to Indonesia. We parked at the village of Anan Rais. This is a village of Bidayuh people – Land Dyaks. They live in three Longhouses but these are not quite like the South Sea Island version I imagined. Think of a street raised about ten feet above the ground on wooden poles and framing held together with coachbolts where the ‘paving’ is two sets of split bamboo, one laid in one direction, the other set at right angles, all tied togther and none too secure. Now erect a series of wooden sheds on either side of the street where each single room represents the living space for one family. Now, just like a British housing estate, let individuals make alterations to their property. Some people are happy with the basic dilapidated garden shed, some spend money putting on a modern fascia. In the street and in the buildings add cooking hearths burning dried bamboo and a few sinks. Add standpipes for water which stick upwards through the floor every so often and install electricity. This is something like the impression I got. The Government are paying to keep the Bidayuh traditional rice-growing economy going and encourage them to explain it to tourists. They make various beadwork and blow pipes to sell. In one meeting room there is the barrel of an ancient Dutch cannon and, casually displayed in a wire mesh drum with a hinging mesh lid secured with two padlocks, a pile of human skulls. Pictures of the Long Houses at Anan Rais. We completed our tour, had a snack lunch and drove back to Kuching where I said goodbye to today’s guide.

A little later, I took a walk round the old part of the town, near the river. My pictures of Kuching. It was very hot and on my return I decided to spend the rest of the evening uploading pictures and writing this post.